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Commandments

(Given at to the Mothers' Union at Upavon on October 16th, 2002)

LESSON MARK 10. 17-22. THE RICH YOUNG MAN.

During the past few days, three things have happened which have had an odd sort of connection. First I found myself re-reading little book by my former tutor, Archbishop Blanch, on the Ten Commandments. Then there came through my door, the latest Police report on how some of the commandments were being broken in this area.

Next came Harvey Gibbons' first P.C.C. meeting as Vicar of this Parish. This last put me in mind of my own first P.C.C. meeting as Rector of a parish in Gloucestershire. They were all wondering what the new man was going to do - hoping they'd seen the last of some things they didn't like, and hoping that he would continue, or re-start the things they did like. The trouble was that they nearly all wanted something different !

After the preliminaries, one rather pompous man said, "I hope, Rector, that you are going to start teaching young people the ten commandments again" - the implication being that this would then solve all our social problems.

I replied diplomatically that the Ten Commandments would be on the confirmation curriculum, but, as a matter of interest, how many of the P.C.C. regularly kept the fourth?

The reaction was interesting. There were blank looks. Some quiet counting could be seen going on. Then I pointed out that if you gave unqualified obedience to the ten commandments then you do no work whatever on a Saturday, and that included not washing the car, not doing the garden and not travelling more than a couple of miles, and that on foot.

Then there was the story about the old villain who was faced for the first time with the ten commandments by the prison chaplain. He read through them. Then he said, "Well, I can honestly say that I've never made a graven image."

If we are to accept the ten commandments as basis for our social life, then we must first understand something of the circumstances of their origin and find out what is their relevance to modern life.

We must first remember that the people to whom they were given were Hebrews, newly released from captivity in Egypt - newly liberated we might call it; newly released from the rigours of Egyptian law in which they had NO say, and which, as far as they were concerned, was brutal and unjust.

Moses and Aaron and a few of the leaders saw this liberation as an act of the God of their fathers. But we can assume that many did not see it that way. All some knew was that years of slavery were over.

The reaction of many would have been to celebrate their release from Egypt by "painting the town red" - or whatever the Hebrew equivalent was. Liberty unchecked soon leads to licence and licence leads to fragmentation. They were faced with years in the wilderness before entering the promised land. If they were to stay together as a tribe, as a community, the lines of behaviour must be drawn. And those lines must be seen to be drawn by the same power which had hitherto kept them together whilst in Egypt - in other words, their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It has been known for some experts to divide the commandments into two sections - the first four, it has been said, are about relationship with God, and the rest about social behaviour. This is not altogether true. In the Hebrew mind, the two cannot be separated.

When we are faced with some regulation or prohibition, it is worth asking ourselves, "On whose authority?" The release from Egypt was no time for parliamentary debate or for testing of political theories.

So they were presented in the briefest form with the commands of God. Being brief, they could be learnt by heart as I did at school. In the wilderness there were no law books or lawyers - those would come much later, and in abundance as Jesus knew - but everyone could learn and know what God had dictated in order to ensure survival of the nation.

It would of course, take a whole series of talks to examine each commandments in detail so I'm going just to put some thoughts into your minds about a few of them.

First - 1. "You shall have no other Gods but me". Well we don't do we? Or do we? John Betjeman, I think, said "I rather like a dog - as long as he is not spelled backwards"

What is it that influences your behaviour most and what would you most hate to lose? Is there something that gets priority over God in your mind and in your habits? (The rich young man in the story had great possessions. He was sympathetic to Jesus and his teaching, but his priority was elsewhere)

2. "You shall not make a graven image to worship." No. not a carved sculpture perhaps. I wonder if even the most primitive idol-worshipper really thinks that it is the wood or the stone which has the power. Rather is the image the 'thing' which both separates the worshiper from evil power, and can also make that power available for his benefit.

Could your 'graven image' work that way if it is, say, in the form of your political party, your trade union, your membership of some an exclusive organisation, club or religious sect?

Perhaps it is Elvis Presley or David Beckham or the latest pop idol.

What is it that gives you a sense of belonging, and the sense of security or power that goes with it? What, if anything, comes between you and the worship of God, that keeps you at a convenient distance from him?

3. "Oh my God !" If something horrible, unexpected or threatening happens to you, is that a real cry to God for help?

In the heavy engineering industry in which I once served there were two other words, frequently used, which expressed the same reaction. They referred to the other place!

4. "Remember the Sabbath". Are you one of those people who are always busy, always out, who live by the answering machine and the mobile' - who can "only stop a minute". I have met some clergy who are like that. A Sabbath is time for rest, for reflection, for enjoying company, family and friends.

The workaholic has literally, no time for God. I've known plenty of them. Three of them, former associates of mine, died thirty years ago because they were like that.

5. "Honour your parents". I was once on the chaplaincy of what was then called a Borstal institution - a prison for young offenders. To have a Jewish boy as a prisoner was very rare. Perhaps the fifth commandment to "honour your father and mother" had something to do with it. The Hebrews, and the Jews still, place great store by the family. A Jewish commentator wrote: "The home is infinitely more important to a people than are schools, the professions or its political life. Filial respect is the ground of national permanence and prosperity."

I wonder if the greatest threat to civilisation today is not  terrorism, but the lack of permanence, commitment, tolerance and understanding in family life.

A child's first awareness of "God" comes through its mother, the first provider of sustenance and of love. Very soon as the child's consciousness develops, the father enters the child's horizon - or should do - if only because parents, then, are seen to love each other and to be committed to each other - with all that that implies.

It is by becoming aware of adult behaviour which is founded on love that a child learns that THIS is what is normal human behaviour. The child learns most not from what it is told, but from what is practised in its presence.

In Hebrew thought, the honour which children were expected to give to parents was based on the honour which those parents were seen by them to give to God.

It is something like this teaching that is part of the Church's 'preparation for marriage' I hope that it still goes on.

I could continue, but time is not on our side and we shall have to keep the rest, perhaps, for another time.

The Ten Commandments are themselves short, but their application is wide. Their application embraces all our ideas of worship, of family, social and political behaviour, and their enlargement is the basis of our Lord's Sermon on the Mount. He came, as he said, not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it - to apply it to our condition and to our needs.

The Estate of William John Green, 2004